Chapter 9: Seeing All People More Clearly

by Ronald S. Rochon, Ph.D.

Posted on April 02, 2024

Download as a PDF

Download as a PDF

While I don’t consider myself profound, I believe my lived experiences are worthy of examination. In fact, I believe it is our lived experiences that truly represent our greatest life lessons. Mine, like yours, have shaped me into the person I am today and have prepared me, to the extent such preparation is possible, to be a university president

As the president of a comprehensive public university in southern Indiana, I feel an urgent duty to prepare and equip students to participate in the betterment of American society, as well as global communities. 

June 30, 2023, marked the completion of my fifth year as president, and during this time I have had the great fortune of meeting some of the most amazing academic leaders—compassionate, sensitive, hard-working, selfless, smart, ethical visionaries who have striven to improve our world. Some have served as personal mentors, providing insight and counsel during the most difficult and unpredictable period in recent higher education history—the global pandemic. Like many across academe, I was unprepared for what was happening to our institutions and did not foresee the lingering long-term impact of human loss and suffering within our community, both on and off campus.

More importantly, I did not expect the collision of so many different lived realities of struggle and hardship to be exposed with such emphasis—health-care insecurity, food insecurity, housing insecurity, financial insecurity, mental health struggles at all age levels, a lack of internet connections within under-served zip codes, racial/ethnic/religious/homophobic bigotry and hatred, and so many other human struggles, all being emphasized, or maybe reminding us, as leaders, that these plights were in fact already present within our own “backyards.” Perhaps they were just overlooked as we went about our daily routines—meeting with state officials while managing enrollment, budgets, alumni relations, etc. I learned many lifelong lessons during the pandemic—one of the most important was to work harder to see all people.

On any given day, we encounter situations and people in the world we can either look away from or choose to truly see. One such incident occurred recently with the unhoused while I was in Washington, D.C., working with other university presidents from institutions across the nation. During our meetings, discussions revolved around the importance of creating opportunities for the underserved, the under-resourced, and the underrepresented members of American society with access to higher education, with a consensus that this was imperative for the advancement of our society. 

On any given day, we encounter situations and people in the world we can either look away from or choose to truly see.  

Moreover, our meetings and conversations focused on a variety of issues relevant to higher education and our student populations: performance metrics, funding formulas, the value of college degrees, university accountability, student success, classroom curriculum, racial climate, freedom of speech/expression, community engagement, and more. As we ended our first half day, a few of my colleagues and I walked down a congested sidewalk trying not to bump into strangers flowing toward us, headed to lunch before another series of afternoon meetings.  
Within five minutes of walking and conversing about the morning’s topics, we encountered an African American man lying on the sidewalk in a fetal position. He was asleep and oblivious to the bustle of busy professionals and others with a steadfast pace making their way to their next destination. I remember looking at him as I slowly passed his body. It appeared his belongings were in a black plastic bag lying alongside him. He was dirty, clothes tattered, hair and body unkempt, and, in fact, his partially bare lower torso was exposed for all to see. 
As I walked near this man, questions flooded over me. How do I help this stranger—this human being? I immediately wondered who he was, when was his last meal, and who were his parents. I further wondered if he had his own family, if he had any children, if he was a sibling, and whether he would remain safe on the sidewalk. I wondered if he had attended a university like the one I currently lead, and if so, why that preparation had not prevented him from ending up on America’s streets. Even with all these questions running through my mind, I continued to walk with my colleagues right past his struggles into my lunch meeting enjoying my meal while discussing higher education policy. 
Some may ask “what does an unhoused person have to do with higher education?” or, more directly, “with the university presidency?” My thought is this person has everything to do with our daily work as academic leaders. The topics of our discussions—the value of education, accountability, curriculum, campus climate, community engagement, wellness, and civility—are intimately connected to finding ways of possibly preventing inevitable crises as part of solving difficult problems. The human struggles we encounter daily should be a piece of how we define student success and student community engagement or, more importantly, how we define the role of the university in a democracy—a democracy that extends itself to the well-being of communities beyond the quite often well-resourced campus border. 

The human struggles we encounter daily should be a piece of how we define student success and student community engagement or, more importantly, how we define the role of the university in a democracy.  

In fact, by and large, college campuses have historically been absolved from home insecurity matters. This is no longer the case, as recent studies indicate that up to 14 percent of two- and four- year college attendees are currently experiencing some form of housing insecurity ( There is an obvious import here for university presidents. But we must also shoulder the larger structural burden of creating a society that will not countenance human suffering, will refuse to look the other way, and will demand an end to the problem through policy effort, reimagined practices, and collaboration at every level.

I have spoken to family, friends, and colleagues on several occasions about the overwhelming number of people within just minutes of our nation’s capital, as well as those in our own cities and towns, who face the reality of multiple “insecurities” that interfere with one’s ability to live a life with dignity. This is happening within every city in America as well as the city that decides finances and writes policy into laws that affect the safety and well-being of human life for most of the globe. As discussions about the value of college degrees continue to be debated in D.C., I would argue it doesn't take much intellectual effort to recognize higher education is the antidote to many current societal ills that threaten our democracy—threaten the protection our children deserve.

Throughout my life, I have been afforded great opportunities to meet children across the globe—at schools, community centers, places of worship, and even in grocery stores. One of my favorite questions for every child I meet is “what would you like to be when you grow up?” You can only imagine the diversity of responses children provide: doctor, bus driver, teacher, ballet dancer, professional basketball player, actor, musician, president, artist…the list goes on ad infinitum. However, the one thing I have yet to hear a child articulate is “when I grow up, I want to be homeless.”

It is the rare American who hasn't encountered unhoused people—so much so it has caused too many of us to become desensitized (me included) to the presence of children, women, and men (across race) living their lives on boulevards, under bridges, and in the back alleys of our nation. Yet America continues to struggle with this human crisis. In fact, if one googles the query “what percentage of Americans are living from paycheck to paycheck?” results quickly, and overwhelmingly, present a stark reality: most Americans (58-64 percent) live check to check. The sober reality facing the United States, is six out of ten American families are living potentially just one family crises away from home insecurity as well as other forms of societal displacement and possible forms of human devastation.

That day, in Washington, D.C., a stranger caught my eye, slowing my persistent pace as I observed him sleeping as the many pedestrians walked by his body as if he wasn’t even there. Citizens and visitors of all backgrounds were walking, talking—going about their day—without interruption. I returned to the same spot later that day to provide a meal for that man; however, by the time of my return he had already departed or perhaps was forced by an authority to vacate that sidewalk, still occupied by the bustle of human activity. As I searched for him, I realized something even more important—that people in need can’t afford to wait for my/our convenience. Not our students, not the communities we have been honored to serve, and most certainly not someone in crisis.

As presidents, we are always working to redefine student success and prepare them for the futures of their choosing. That requires staying ahead of their needs through our collective and collaborative efforts. One way, as leaders with “thirty-thousand-foot views,” is to equip our students to see, address, and resolve society’s ills. But before we can do that, we must begin to see all people more clearly—both on and off campus. We have all walked past someone living on the street. We have all found ourselves unsure of what to do. We all know not every situation has an immediate solution. But if we begin today to see the needs of all people and prepare our students to rid the world of its ills, then there is hope. My hope is that today’s children never experience the turmoil of being unhoused tomorrow and none of us are faced with walking past another human living in crisis and unhoused on any street, as I did that day in D.C.